Page layout and single page encounters

I want to write an interesting encounter – an antithesis of “roll on this table for a random encounter”. My problem with those kinds of encounters is that they often have very little imagination to them, and by their nature the DM can’t prep for them to add more colour. I know they gap they’re trying to fill: sometimes players dawdle and if they hang around the forest or make too much noise in a dungeon, something should turn up to teach them a lesson and get them moving.

I don’t think that problem needs to be solved by having a table to roll on which says “3 bears, 2 liches.” Why can’t there just be half a dozen generic, but well thought out, encounters at the back of the adventure?

I’ve been working on writing one of those. Laying it out on an A5 page is tricky though.

I’ve got one page of text which the DM should read at their leisure, explaining the environment. And then the cast list for the combat. The idea is that this is all they need open for the encounter, and can doodle on the page as needed.

I’ve only managed to fit 4 of the bad guys on this, so it doesn’t really scale. As I’m writing this, it occures to me that I’ll actually have two pages of A5 content I can fill for the DM to see at once.

Here’s the aims:

  • Give the bad guys descriptions. If you’re playing theatre of the mind this is super important, but hard to think up something unique on the spot. I promise your players will refer to them by their descriptions rather than “the one I just hit” or “which one is closer again?”.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: fleshless mobs. The goblin has a locket around his neck and suddenly you’ve got the players thinking of his loved ones back home.
  • Give the bad guys tactics. Read their actions from top to bottom on their turn. Do the top most possible one, skipping if it sounds boring right now. This gives them a personality which the players can come to expect during the fight.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: The bad guy has a d4 dagger and a d6 shortsword. Why would you ever chose the dagger? Many creatures in the MM have redundant weapons, leaving them as one-trick ponies.
  • Initiative has already been rolled. It was random, trust me. Just pencil in the characters around.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why bother rolling for this at the table? It takes ages to do this, meanwhile your players are already yelling their initiative at you.
  • Fleeing should be at the front of the DM’s mind.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: Why does ever bad guy fight to the death? How often to bar fights end up with body bags? At some point, even in a war people give up. The bad guys here must have a limit of some kind. The flee condition turns the end of the battle from a slog to a race, before they get away.
  • Loot is relevant, more interesting than just money, and already written down.
    • Problem I’m trying to solve: “Can I loot the corpses?” “Uh, sure. They’re got shitty clothes and weapons that aren’t worth taking… They’ve got six gold though, I guess.”

Typography

I’ve been reading through my copies of Workskin (Norman & Gorganmilk) again and I’ve also got The Peridot (David McGrogan) kicking around my deks now because of it. I quite like the idea of throwing some ideas into a zine like this so that’s what I’ve been working on recently. (This something that I played around with before if anyone spotted my unlaunched Patreon and was actually what Merchants and Civilisations was originally for.)

Anyway, I keep finding hurdles to slow myself down with. I’m unsure why I’m that kind of person. One such hurdle was “I can’t even tell if this text should be justified or not.” I ended up Googling for it and found Butterick’s Practical Typography. It’s full of advice that I’m working through. I’d recommend it for anyone writing who isn’t likely to get an editor or layout person.

It talks a lot about typography not being about aesthetics. Instead, it’s more about being appropriate for your subject area and being in the right format to sink in as completely as possible whilst reading.

For completion: with regards to left aligned or justified, it suggests following personal preference. There’s apparently little evidence of one being better than the other. I’ll go with left aligned right now, because it leaves more space for notes, but I don’t have a strong preference.

I did wanna do the preface centred but was heavily berated by Butterick’s chapter on that.

A poem showing off when centred text can be used. The irony is that the poem is written centre-aligned despite the advice.
A poem from Butterick.

When writing is difficult

“Everyone has a novel inside of them, and that’s perhaps the best place for it to stay,” is a witticism that I find a bit disheartening. There are quite a few people out there and judging by the number of hours humans have spent watching Gangam Style alone they have plenty of time too. Surely, someone must appreciate your drivel if they come across it at the right time in their life. If it fills a niche – however specific that niche may be – then someone must like it, somewhere out there.

On the unlikely event that there is literally no one, you can at least attempt to have fun whilst writing. Then it’s just a hobby you enjoy doing. It’s quite possible that writing a novel only you will ever read (or find worth reading) is as much as a waste of time as video games, but we still play those by the decade every day.

So, I say to you, just bloody write. Keep writing through the shit parts (you can always edit it later; another hobby to take up, perhaps) and push on for an end. A cliched end, an unsatisfying end, or even kind of meandering end that clutches to life for a few pages too long. Write your story and be glad you’ve done it. Then start on your next. That might be better, who knows.

The bad news is that getting to the end is awfully hard and I’m not sure why. I always lose interest. Often, I do have a premise that I quite like. As an example, I took Aladdin recently and tried writing it as if it were set in the future; a cyberpunk scavenger comes across a long-lost artificial intelligence which appears to have been created and then lost before it could find time to boot up. The AI so incredibly sophisticated that even today it can hack into any Internet-connected system, offering the opportunity to collect cash, information, even a cleared criminal record. That’s when the antagonist appears, someone who spots this highly intelligent algorithm poking around some servers and sets out to get their hands on it no matter the cost – and awfully, does. How will our hero get the tech back into the correct hands? Well, you know the plot of Aladdin.

I’m pretty pleased with that premise. A spin on a tale told many times before. I’ve not managed to finish it though. I’ve not managed to get past just the opening few paragraphs. I’m really unsure why.

At times like these, when a writer has an idea and can’t get it onto the page, do they just push on and crank it out? That was my very advice I just put above. Is that always the correct advice to live by though? Instead, should I decide that the story hasn’t gripped me, regardless of how interesting the idea might be, and I should just move onto the next idea?

I wonder if I keep pushing, will I get the ball rolling and start to gain a rhyme.

I suppose there’s only one way to find out.